Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
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People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)

Show 63 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #92: ‘How the Media Undermine American Democracy’

The print edition of the NYT that arrived at my house two days ago, saying something very different from what the "same" story was saying online.

Twenty years ago I published a book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. The Atlantic ran an excerpt as a cover story, called “Why Americans Hate the Media.”

The main argument was that habits of mind within the media were making citizens and voters even more fatalistic and jaded about public affairs than they would otherwise be—even more willing to assume that all public figures were fools and crooks, even less willing to be involved in public affairs, and unfortunately for the media even less interested in following news at all.

These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”

I could explain it more, or I could suggest you go read the article.  (It’s free, but it never hurts to subscribe!)

Through the rise of Donald Trump, I’ve been watching to see how these patterns of mind might reassert themselves, particularly in the form of normalizing Trump.

John Kennedy, who had served as a Congressman and Senator, felt he had to practice for his presidential debate in 1960. Richard Nixon, who had spent eight years as Vice President, practiced too. Donald Trump says that practicing is for losers. (AP)

A new story in the NYT says this about Donald Trump’s debate preparations:

He has been especially resistant to his advisers’ suggestions that he take part in mock debates with a Clinton stand-in….

Instead, Mr. Trump asked a battery of questions about debate topics, Mrs. Clinton’s skills and possible moderators, but people close to him said relatively little had been accomplished….

Mr. Trump, in the interview, said he saw little use in standing at lecterns and pretending to debate his opponent.

“I know who I am, and it got me here,” Mr. Trump said, boasting of success in his 11 primary debate appearances and in capturing the Republican nomination over veteran politicians and polished debaters…  “I mean, it’s possible we’ll do a mock debate, but I don’t see a real need.”

This is either extremely clever or bottomlessly stupid. It’s clever if it lulls the Clinton camp into thinking (as it won’t) that they too should just coast into the debate. It will be all the more brilliant if it masks actual preparation on Trump’s side.

It is bottomlessly stupid in all other circumstances.

I have a big piece coming out in the magazine in a few weeks elaborating on who has what to gain and lose in the debates, and why. So I’ll save the full explication for then.

For now I’ll just say: No previous non-incumbent candidate has ever applied the “I know who I am: why prepare?” approach to the general-election debates, and there’s a reason. The reason is, these head-to-head showdowns are very different from the multi-player primary-debate scrums, and doing well at them is an acquired skill. Incumbent presidents have been tempted to apply this approach to their first debate with a challenger (for reasons explained here). This is what Barack Obama did before his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, and it is much of the reason he badly lost that debate to Romney, as incumbents who believe themselves to be above practice repeatedly have done.

So three-plus weeks from now either Trump will show us that once again all previous rules of politics are nullified via his existence; or, as with so many other missteps he has made in the past month, he’ll show once again that he is out of his depth in a general-election campaign.

Details to come in the magazine soon, and over the airwaves starting September 26.

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The NYT has unveiled a nice time-capsule-like feature, which matches a timeline of Trump’s outlandish statements with a list of the Republicans who have announced that they can no longer support him. It’s elegantly done.

Meantime, as the clock nears 69 days to go until the election, Trump rumbles on: with stolid support from the party’s “leadership,” and no tax return or plausible medical report on hand.

From Donald Trump on Twitter

When news broke about the horrific mass shooting in Orlando ten weeks ago, Donald Trump’s first reaction, as noted in Time Capsule #19, was to send out a Tweet saying “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

When news broke today about the horrific fatal shooting of yet another person in Chicago, 32-year old Nykea Aldridge, mother of four and cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, Donald Trump’s first reaction was via the Tweet shown above.

This time he didn’t say “appreciate the congrats” on being right in his argument that life for African-Americans is so terrible that “what the hell do you have to lose?” by voting Trump. But his reaction was just as it had been with Orlando: bad news for someone else was significant mainly in being good news for him.

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As outraged reaction built to Trump’s callous response, he put out another Tweet about 80 minutes later. It read:

Trump on Twitter

Here is the notable aspect of that follow-up message, apart from its expressing the thoughts most public figures would have begun with. The meta-info at the bottom of the message says “Twitter for iPad,” thus:

Virtually all of Trump’s countless previous messages have either been labelled “Twitter for Android,” for the more free-swinging ones he appears to write himself; or “Twitter for iPhone,” for the more policy-oriented ones that appear to come from his staff. I don’t recall seeing a “Twitter for iPad” label ever before. Some could have been there, but if so they’re rare. (The first message came via Twitter for iPhone, although its tone is more like that of Trump on Android.** See tech update below.)

Either Donald Trump has, in the course of this morning, suddenly turned to a new technology platform to express a more appropriate-sounding correction to his initial narcissistic reflex, or someone else has stepped in via iPad, to try to save him from himself. My money is on the latter.

Either way the point is, with 72 days until the election and the party leadership still standing firm behind its nominee, this is public behavior of a sort we have not previously seen from presidents or nominees.

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** Tech update Thanks to several readers who pointed out that what I am calling the “first” message, the one shown at the top of this post and composed via iPhone, was actually not first. Trump’s original Tweet, now deleted, had the same contents but misspelled Wade’s first name as “Dwayne.” It’s impossible to know now, but I would bet that in fact it came via Trump’s own Android—with its misspelling, and with its instant “VOTE TRUMP!” reaction to tragic news. It’s the re-post, with the correct spelling of Dwyane, that was via the staff iPhone.

Thus the sequence would be:

  • Message #1, now lost to the ages, presumably via Trump on Android [update and via the Politiwoops archive of deleted tweets, confirmation that this first one really was from Android];
  • Message #2, with correct name spelling, via staff iPhone;
  • Message #3, “thoughts and prayers,” via someone on iPad who realizes that the previous ones could look bad on their own.

Of course I would never presume to offer advice to campaigners. But why not just buy a couple more Androids for the comms team, so that all the Tweets “from” Trump wouldn’t start out with such obviously different markers?

What Trump announced on Twitter, before he went to his doctor’s office and, with limo running outside, told the doctor what he would like the letter to say.

Every few entries in this series, I have mentioned that Donald Trump has departed from past norms by refusing to release either his tax returns, as all nominees since Richard Nixon have done, or a plausible medical report, an expectation that goes back even further than Nixon.

The tax return matters for Trump because it matters for everyone, let alone someone with his complex financial history. The medical report matters because, if elected, Trump would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency; because his supporters have been recklessly suggesting that Hillary Clinton is ailing or impaired; and because Trump’s own bearing and behavior raise legitimate questions about whether he is perfectly well.  And the health report matters because the only information Trump has put out so far on the subject has been an utter farce.

The “medical” report Trump offered late last year was a one-page letter, devoid of details, and written with Trump’s favored “win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” approach to nuance. Its memorable conclusion was: “Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”  

Over the months I’ve speculated about who its real author might be. The North Korean News Agency? The Onion? The ghost of Mobutu Sese Seko? Trump himself? You get the idea. The asserted real author is a New York doctor named Harold Bornstein. Last week a doctor named Jen Gunter wrote about the many signs that made his letter simply impossible to believe.

Yesterday NBC News managed to interview Harold Bornstein in his office about the circumstances in which he wrote the letter.  You will not do better in capturing the spirit of Campaign 2016 than to watch the brief NBC video below:

Bornstein tells NBC that he took his guidance on language from Trump himself, which comes as no surprise. My favorite part is the end of the clip, when Bornstein says “I got rushed, and I get anxious when I get rushed, so I tried to get four or five lines done as fast as possible.” More from NBC is here. Other angles here and here.

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Every so often I think: later on, people will not believe that things actually happened this way—the way they are happening around us, in real time, in late August of 2016. But thus it stands, with 72 days until the election, and neither tax information nor a plausible medical report forthcoming from one of the two people who could become the 45th president.

Hillary Clinton in Reno today Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

As with a previous “Crickets” installment, #13, this one notes something we have not heard, and whose absence is remarkable in the history of presidential campaigning.

Today the Democratic nominee for president said this about the Republican party’s chosen nominee:

From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties….

He promoted the racist lie that President Obama isn’t really an American citizen – part of a sustained effort to delegitimize America’s first black President.

In 2015, Trump launched his own campaign for President with another racist lie. He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals….

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of bigotry.

And she went on, in detail. It amounted to as blunt a criticism as one nominee has made about another since … well, I can’t remember a comparable case.

And here is a list of the first ten senior Republican party officials who sprang to their nominee’s defense. These were the senators, governors, cabinet secretaries, former candidates who rushed to say that of course he’s not a bigot, of course he’s not playing on prejudice, of course he’s not legitimizing racism:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

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One-time wrestling-world figure Jesse Ventura, shown while he was governor, won the support of voters in Minnesota. One-time wrestling-world figure Donald Trump might miss the chance to get Minnesotans' votes. Eric Miller / Reuters

The sample ballots recently sent out by the Minnesota Secretary of State included, as presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton of the Democrats, Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, Jill Stein of the Greens, Dan Vacek of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, and a variety of others. But neither Donald Trump nor any other Republican candidate was listed.

Why? The GOP had apparently missed the deadlines and procedures for getting on the ballot—deadlines that the Legal Marijuana Now Party, to name one, had been able to meet. The story from City Pages is here.

Presumably the Republican party will figure out a last-minute workaround. And anyway, Minnesota has a modest total of 10 electoral votes, which have gone Democratic in every single election for the past 40 years. (The estimable Walter Mondale carried two states when running against Ronald Reagan in 1984: the District of Columbia, and his own home state of Minnesota.) So maybe it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.

But once again, I’m not aware of anything like this having happened with a major party before. Managerial excellence is of course central to Donald Trump’s promises of what he would do in office. What he’s managing now is his campaign.

Early this month, a group of 50 national-security officials who had served in Republican administrations—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II—released a statement opposing Donald Trump and saying that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”

A few days before that, a former head of the CIA formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, saying that Trump had become “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” That was a day after President Obama declared Trump “unfit” for the presidency, and a former prime minister of Sweden said Trump was “a serious threat to the security of the West.”

Today Ben Leubsdorf, Eric Morath, and Josh Zumbrun of the WSJ published the results of a survey of all living former members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, with service dating back to the time of Richard Nixon. Not one of them expressed support for Donald Trump. All of the Republicans who expressed a preference opposed him.

From today’s WSJ

The story quoted a post by Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the CEA under George W. Bush:

“I have Republican friends who think that things couldn’t be worse than doubling down on Obama policies under Hillary Clinton. And, like them, I am no fan of the left’s agenda of large government and high taxes,” Mr. Mankiw wrote. “But they are wrong: Things could be worse. And I fear they would be under Mr. Trump.”

I’m not aware of anything like this having happened before. Noted for the record, with 74 days to go until the election, and with no tax returns or plausible health report yet on public offer.

Donald Trump in Jackson, Mississippi this evening, with Nigel Farage. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The previous 84 items in this series cover developments that might concern Donald Trump’s opponents. Tonight we have one that might concern his most fervent supporters.

In an interview aired Wednesday evening with his supporter Sean Hannity, Trump showed that he understood the logic behind immigration-reform proposals like that of Marco Rubio’s “Gang of 8.” The starting point for such proposals has been the reality that millions of people are already in the United States without legal permission. Some are ordinary criminals, who if they’re caught are usually jailed or deported. But many others are parents, students, workers, or others who lead regular law-abiding lives except for their illegal immigration status.

What do you do with them? From George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the bipartisan members of the Gang of 8, the answer was: you don’t pretend you’re going to round them up and expel them. It can’t and won’t happen, and shouldn’t. But Donald Trump’s answer since the start of his campaign has been: Yes it can! And will and should! Find these illegals and send them home. That was the basis of his attack on softies like Rubio (who ended up renouncing the Gang of 8) and Jeb Bush. It was the logical complement to his talk about the wall. It has been to his campaign what standing up to the Soviets was to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But in the interview tonight Trump said, in effect, Never mind! You can read the whole extraordinary transcript of his talk with Hannity in this Twitter post by Sopan Deb of CBS News. Here is a crucial passage:

Transcript via Sopan Deb of CBS.

“It’s a very, very hard thing.” It’s so tough to think of throwing a family out. These are exactly the real-world concerns behind decades’ worth of reform efforts. They’re the same concerns Trump has until now mocked as weak and loser-like. His hard line on deportation is what has attracted his most devoted supporters. One of those, Ann Coulter, had a pro-Trump book published this very day, in which she says: “There is nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.”

Will his supporters still forgive him? Has his policy changed? Is it a policy at all? We’ll see. One way or another, this is a moment to note.

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Three more details about the pivot:

The video below is not by Donald Trump or from the Trump campaign. That’s why I put an asterisk in the title line. To be clear, he has no known official involvement with it whatsoever.

But in a chronicle of what America is like, 75 days before the electorate decides whether Trump will be president, this is worth noting as an artifact. In previous campaigns—Obama-Romney, all the way back to, say, Carter-Reagan—I’m not aware of anything this blunt coming as close to “mainstream” respectability as the “alt-right” has done in informal alliance with the Trump campaign.

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Some readers have complained or wondered about the title of yesterday’s installment #83, “Rent Is Too Damn High.” I guess I should have spelled out that it was an allusion to a colorful figure named Jimmy McMillan, who ran for mayor of New York in the Bloomberg era on a platform of “The Rent Is Too Damn High.” It wasn’t that long ago, but evidently some people didn’t know about it.

In the same err-on-the-side-of-clarity spirit, let me point out that this new video is meant as a take-off of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which after all came out nearly 30 years ago and is about the milestones of his (and my) much-deplored Baby Boomer generation.

Bonus surprise explanation: a main figure in the new video and in the movement behind it is a man named Jared Taylor. You see him briefly, with a red necktie, at time 0:40 of the video and again at time 1:00. I am pretty sure it is him in the shades, straw hat, and blue Hawaiian shirt that you see in the static shot above and playing the saxophone from time 3:00 onward.

Jared Taylor and I were good friends in the 1980s and 1990s, based on shared interest in Japan. He grew up there as the child of missionaries; went to Japanese public school and had native-speaker command of the language; and wrote an outstanding book about the strengths and weaknesses of Japan called Shadows of the Rising Sun.

We stayed in touch in the U.S. in the 1990s and I still think of him in friendly terms. But our views have diverged.

Taylor has become an organizational and intellectual leader of the “American Renaissance” movement, progenitor of what is now called the alt-right. The Washington Post’s David Weigel, from whom I learned about the video, wrote about Taylor and his movement last week. That will give you background on the ideas and people behind a video like this.

Roger Stone at the Republican National Convention last month. Now he says that Donald Trump should release his tax returns "immediately." Alex Jones, of Infowars, is half-visible in profile on the left. What appears to be a "Hillary 2016" blue t-shirt on the man holding a cameraphone in the background actually says "Hillary for Prison 2016" James Fallows / The Atlantic

I am pivoting toward a sanity-protecting, time-preserving policy of simply noting “norm-changing” activities from the Trump campaign. That is, words or actions for which there is no known precedent from other nominees. Two from today:

1) S.V. Date’s story in Huffington Post on how the Trump campaign raised the rent (for space in Trump’s own buildings) once donors started picking up the tab. Sample:

Trump nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign, according to a Huffington Post review of Federal Election Commission filings. The rent jumped even though he was paying fewer staff in July than he did in March.

When “profiteering” or “self-dealing” complaints have arisen in past campaigns, they’ve usually involved consultants or pollsters who might, say, coordinate big TV-ad buys and then take a commission on all the purchases. I’m not aware of any that have involved the candidate’s own businesses before.

2) Roger Stone, one of Trump’s most ferocious advocates, says that Trump should release his tax returns “immediately.” The norm-changing aspect here is Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his tax information, an obligation that even Stone recognizes. Fred Goldberg, who served as commissioner of the IRS under the first President Bush, writes to underscore the fatuousness of Trump’s “they’re under audit” excuse for not releasing his returns.

Both noted for the record, with 76 days to go.

Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump in North Carolina last week Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Reminder: The original idea behind this Time Capsule series was to record, in real time, what the American public knows and learns about Donald Trump while it is deciding whether he should become president. Mainly I’ve tried to stick with norm-changing events, those for which there is no obvious precedent. Here are four recent items that, to the best of my knowledge, differ from what we’ve ever seen from major-party nominees or their campaigns.

1) “Hillary Clinton is sick.” In stump speeches Donald Trump has been saying that Hillary Clinton looks bad and has to sleep a lot. His campaign representatives Rudy Giuliani and Katrina Pierson have been much more direct, implying that Clinton either has a serious disease or is suffering cognitive damage. You can read about it in David Graham’s new item here, and also here, here, here, and here. On CNN, Amy Kremer of Women Vote Trump likened the aftereffects of Clinton’s concussion several years ago to traumatic brain damage for NFL players.

On the merits of such claims, Clinton’s doctor, Lisa Bardack, has released a statement denying these reports and affirming her “excellent health.” (As a reminder, the only health information Trump has released is the Onion-style report from last year, which states “unequivocally he will be  the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)

As for the norms of campaigning: Health questions obviously have a long history in presidential politics. Franklin Roosevelt was gravely ill when he ran for a fourth term in 1944 but did his best to conceal that—as he had (with press connivance) minimized awareness of his paralysis throughout his time as president. There were whispering campaigns about Ronald Reagan’s age and mental condition when he ran for re-election in 1984, about John Kennedy’s ailments including Addison’s disease in 1960, and of course about Thomas Eagleton’s history of mental illness, which drove him from the Democratic ticket in 1972. But I’m not aware of a previous case in which senior campaign representatives came right out with public suggestions of ill health, as Trump’s are doing now.

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2. Deportation? Maybe not. Reports over the weekend suggest that Trump might be reconsidering his promise to find people without legal immigration papers and send them back home.

“Adaptability” has always been part of politics. FDR ran as a fiscal conservative in 1932 but then launched the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 as the president who “kept us out of war” and then took us into war. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, both previously in favor of the TPP trade deal, now are both against it—the same is of course true of Hillary Clinton. There are examples from almost every president or nominee.

But again I’m not aware of another case of a nominee suggesting a change on so fundamental a premise of his campaign. It is as if Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, had indicated that he was open-minded about secession, or like George McGovern in 1972 saying that maybe the Vietnam War wasn’t so bad. (And to spell this out: Lincoln and McGovern were right in the views they had and stuck with. Trump’s deportation plan, in my view, is wrong, but it’s been the heart of his campaign.)

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3. A new season of The Apprentice? A report by Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair indicates that Trump talked with NBC officials, before he ran, about possibly hosting new seasons of the show from the White House. Obviously nothing like this has occurred before. Closest imaginable counterpart: if Ronald Reagan, after becoming president, had revived General Electric Theater, a TV series that he hosted in the 1950s and early 1960s.

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4. Insecure. An actual tweet this morning from Trump.

Trump on Twitter

Every president ends up resenting the press. While in office Harry Truman got so mad about a hostile Washington Post review of his daughter’s piano concert that he sent a personal letter to the reviewer, Paul Hume, threatening to beat him up. (The letter is here, and it is amazing. For instance: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”) But the Truman episode is famous because it’s so unusual.

The main other illustration: During the 2000 campaign, then-nominee George W. Bush stood at a podium with running mate Dick Cheney and, not realizing the microphone was on, referred to a certain New York Times reporter as “a major league asshole.” Cheney replied, “Yeah, big time.” This is like what Trump keeps doing with his tweets, except that Bush and Cheney didn’t think they were doing it in public, whereas Trump is deliberately sending the message to millions of followers.

It’s now 77 days until the election: no tax returns or plausible health report forthcoming; official GOP leadership still standing firm with the nominee.

Donald Trump makes his appeal to black voters before a crowd in Dimondale, Michigan. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Donald Trump’s comments last night in Dimondale, Michigan, have already received a lot of attention. They’re worth noting as part of his campaign’s evolution, and worth watching in the video below, for these reasons:

  • They come after, not before, the latest “pivot” to a more compassionate, more general-election-minded tone in the campaign. This is the nice Trump.
                                                                             
  • They resemble appeals with a long and sometimes honorable history. Some black conservatives, and more whites, have argued over the decades that the taken-for-granted status of black support for Democratic candidates leaves the African-American vote, well, taken for granted. The most heartfelt and appealing version of the argument that black voters should consider voting Republican came from the late Jack Kemp, due to his sunny bearing and his own bona fides from a career in the integrated world of sports. It was different from the version Trump presented here.
                                                                             
  • Trump ostensibly made his argument to black voters, asking “what do you have to lose?” But if you watch the clip you’ll see that in context he is talking about black people, to an audience that was mainly white. (Audience composition is something you can largely control if you’re running a national campaign. Where you hold the event, where you drum up attendance, whom you seat in the prominent on-camera places behind the candidate and in the front of the crowd—these all have an effect and can be tuned.)
                                                                             
  • Most remarkable was a tone that amounted to treating black America as a problem, rather than as a group that has some problems. The tension between statement and insinuation was similar to Trump’s inaugural statement last year about Mexicans: “they’re sending rapists.” He wasn’t explicitly saying, “Mexicans are rapists.” But the tone and insinuation were those you would never use about a group you cared about, or respected. Also, the repeated you when talking to or about black Americans was not matched by a we, emphasizing that blacks, Mexicans, etc were all part of our America.
                                                                               
    Listen to the passage starting at time 1:05 of the clip below. To me the unavoidable tone is the same: What is wrong with “you people”?

  • Trump rounds out this appeal by saying that if he’s elected, he’ll get 95% black support for his re-election. “I guarantee it!” This will probably end up being classified in the “sarcastic” bin, given that not even Barack Obama got that large a share of the black vote in his re-election run. He got about 93% in 2012; Trump right now is running between 1% and 3% black support, depending on the polls.

Update Trump has said similar things, more clearly, on Fox News. It’s worth reading the report on  Think Progress. “Total catastrophe” is one of the terms he uses to describe the achievements and situation of black Americans.

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